Sunday, August 30, 2009


The Big Bad WolfI’m a huge fan of storytelling. My mother used to read stories to the children at my elementary school, my parents read nightly to me growing up, and I read to my own children.

Reading aloud from books helps them come alive. But I also enjoy oral storytelling (Isn’t all storytelling oral? I never understood that...) Beowulf is a favorite of mine (recorded after many years of being told by firelight), the Grimm Brothers wrote down stories that had been handed down through generations, and folk tales like Paul Bunyan had their genesis with families telling stories.

My singing is wretched, but I always sing to my daughter (and did for my son when he was younger). Their favorites are old American folk songs like “Oh, Susanna,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain.” They also loved hearing nursery rhymes set to music.

Alice in Wonderland was penned after Lewis Carroll had been telling his young friend Alice story after story about her made- up adventures in a magical place.

My children love for me to tell stories without using a book. Sometimes they like to hear my renditions of fairy tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but frequently they’re happy to hear stories about the day they were born, or funny stories from when they were toddlers.

It’s amazing how fast the story comes when there’s someone asking “What happens next?”

Wednesday, I’ll start writing my second book for the Memphis Barbeque Series (due April 1.) Right now I don’t even have a concept for the book.

One thing I do know is that I’ll be muttering aloud to myself. My cats and dog will stare oddly at me, but no humans are at home during the day on Wednesday. It’s the perfect time to work out a primitive story outline and see if I have a good enough concept for someone to wonder “What happens next?”

Reading aloud helps me with my revision process, too. I find so many errors that I’d otherwise never have noticed.

With any luck, by the time my kids get off the school bus, I’ll have a foundation to work with. After all, my mysteries are basically, “Once upon a time, someone was murdered….”

Does anyone else talk to themselves when they’re plotting? Or am I the only nutty one out there? :)


Meeting in a café by Constant Désiré Clety ,1899-1955 So I’m back in the grocery store yesterday afternoon (because I can’t organize a week’s cooking menu to save my life) and I’m navigating the extremely crowded aisles at the Harris Teeter. They’re having a Buy 2-Get 3 free Breyer’s ice cream deal, and I was intrigued by the idea of having that much ice cream crammed in my freezer.

My happy epicurean daydream was suddenly interrupted by a conversation two women were having next to me. “Did you know that Nancy has swine flu? She’s horribly, horribly ill. And I just saw her the other day!”

I’m not proud to admit that I got as far away from Nancy’s friend as possible. With two kids in the house, I’m already a germ magnet and there has been an incredible amount of press devoted to H1N1 here in North Carolina. The schools are making automated phone calls about it, the newspaper has a story about it just about every day, and the television news is rife with it. You’d think it was like cholera in The Secret Garden or something---run! Run for your lives!

This hype makes me wonder if I should even care about H1N1 (although I wasn’t taking any chances at the grocery store.) I mean, I already wash my hands about 2 million times a day, and have the dry skin to prove it. I know this virus is serious. But so is the seasonal flu and really everyone is incredibly blasé about seasonal flu. The fact that it’s getting so much press makes me suspicious.

Hype in general makes me suspicious, actually. I also wonder about heavily-promoted books. I usually see hype this way: Literary fiction=no hype unless Oprah discovers it. Chick Lit=lots and lots of hype. Cleverly written novels=cult-like hype that sometimes results in mainstream success. Genre fiction=author generated hype and hype from avid genre fiction readers (which is VERY appreciated by genre fiction authors.) Best selling series=publisher-generated hype .

I was a rebellious child in many ways and sometimes I think I haven’t grown up all that much. The more I’m told by the press to read something, the less I want to read it.

It’s gotten so that the few people I really believe are book review bloggers. Why? They’re devoted readers. They care about the plot and the characters. They’re not making a dime from the process. They are savvy readers who read a ton of books from a variety of genres.

There are some fantastic book review bloggers out there. Some of them are listed in my sidebar. Now I have a to-read list that’s pages long---but I’m excited about the books on the list. And I feel they were recommended by friends.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

How I Survived My Kids’ Summer Vacation

Girl on a red carpet--Felice Casorati (1883-1963) Well, school started back this past week here in North Carolina. I have to admit in many ways I was glad. Don’t get me wrong—I love my children and love spending time with them. But it’s the guilt. Oh good Lord---the guilt!

Moms and dads usually feel guilty no matter what. I think we all firmly believe that our kids will be in therapy years from now talking about us. And we can’t avoid guiltt—if we spend too much time with our kids, they’re not developing meaningful relationships with their peers. If we don’t spend enough time with them, then they look at us with their little doe eyes.

Usually, the children’s summer revolves completely around them. Actually, our whole lives usually revolve around the kids. But this summer was a different. Mama had a book to write and one to promote.

Some of you might be writing with preschoolers or babies at home, so this advice will apply to you all the time. I was right there with you a few years back.

Writing with children:

Go on an outing—the kids and your manuscript. If your kids are older, the park, skating rink, bowling alley, swimming pool, etc, work out well. If they’re younger, try one of those indoor playgrounds with inflatables.

Bring a friend for your child. Or more than one. They’re much happier if they are on outings with a friend or two. And they’re more inclined to let you get some work done.

Plan some dedicated time with your child to play one on one. This time can be either before or after the time that you need to get some work done. Here’s the deal with this time: you need to be completely focused on your child. No thinking about anything else. You play Monopoly, read a few books, whatever they want to do with you---and then you explain you are going to spend X amount of time writing.

Quiet time works for everyone. Even my older child (12) needs time to unwind in the afternoon. My kids unplugged for a while with a book or played quietly in their room while I worked on my laptop. When I had a toddler, I’d put her in her room and give her books. The rule was that even if they couldn’t sleep, they had to “read” (look at pictures.)

Host playdates. I know—this sounds like more trouble than help. But usually (this depends on your kid and the kids you invite over), my children disappear to hang out with their friends. It’s the perfect time to write.

I did end up feeling guilty still---of course. But I managed to balance family and writing pretty well over the summer. And I developed some survival skills that will serve me well next summer (when I’m working on my November 1 2010 deadline.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Pictures in Our Heads

black cat As you know, I had a good-sized revision to make on my manuscript. But—ta-da! I finished it and now have resumed my favorite activity of picking my project to death before I email it off on Tuesday.

Yesterday I created little snippets of behavior, mannerisms, and dialogue that I thought would help a reader picture my characters more clearly.

I also went through and looked critically at my characters. Did they measure up? Were they unlikable? Can people identify with these folks?

When my daughter got home from school yesterday, she had Halloween on the brain. And, wouldn’t you know it, a costume catalog had arrived in the mail that very afternoon. Oddly enough, Miss Priss wants to be a black cat this year. Excellent, I thought. After doing cheerleaders, Hannah Montana, and princesses, a black cat will be a piece of cake.

I flipped through the massive catalog and voila. “Here you are!” I said, slapping the page in triumph. “A black cat.”

She looked at the picture critically. “No. That’s not it.”

“What do you mean? It’s a black cat---tail, ears, everything.”

“It’s not the black cat I’m thinking of. Mine doesn’t look like that.”

You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find a black cat costume on the internet. But 45 minutes later, there was still no black cat to satisfy Miss Priss. They either had white tummies, looked like a boy costume, were for babies, or were cheetah costumes, not black cat costumes.

Now I do not sew, but I know some people I can pay to turn a black jumpsuit into a costume. And it got me to thinking.

My characters are who they are. I’m like my daughter—I have a picture in my head of these people. Sometimes they’re unlikable, sometimes they’re fun. Sometimes they have rotten days. They’re almost like real people in that respect. That’s what creating complex characters is all about.

The vision in my head is just as clear, but I worry about what other people might think of it. Maybe I should just let it be. If it’s too outlandish (the impossible to locate perfect black cat), then I’ll happily make some modifications. But for right now, I’m going to stop picking at these characters.

But not at the rest of the WIP. :)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Book Club and Barbeque

Young Girl Reading-- Cassatt, Mary, 1844-1926, painter. As promised, I’m reporting in on my book club appearance from a couple of nights ago. I have to say I was really impressed with the group.

Favorite parts of the evening:

In honor of the book, members served a Southern-style supper, which I found really thoughtful. Everything was delicious—barbeque, shrimp and grits, cole slaw….yum. (Believe it or not, I was one of only two Southerners there. Lots of Northern transplants in Charlotte.)

They’d collectively sold out my book from the Barnes and Nobles and Borders stores in the Charlotte area, which I sincerely appreciated. Note: book clubs are more of a successful sales event than most booksignings and workshops.

Hearing my book being discussed in an intelligent manner. Sometimes I felt they had better insights than I did, and I’d written the darned thing. They discussed what they thought motivated the behavior of my sleuth’s police chief son (they decided it might be because he was an only child), and why a man might prove a good sidekick for an elderly woman.

Introducing mysteries to some non-mystery readers. I like to say there’s a mystery genre for everyone: police procedural, cozy, thriller, etc.

Having an attentive audience of avid readers. They were very interested in hearing about the genesis of my characters and the plot. They also wanted to hear about the publishing process and what it entails.

Challenges …

My book was a departure from their usual book choices. I knew going in that the group usually read literary fiction. There was a particular member who found the departure from literary fiction toward genre fiction a rough ride. I completely understood that—I’m definitely not aspiring to serious literary merit with my books (not at this point, anyway.) I’m writing solely to entertain, not to educate or to provoke a particular response.

Things I learned:

The members wanted to know more about why the small Southern town on the North Carolina lake was a beacon for a real estate developer. I just blinked. “Well, because it’s a small Southern town on a North Carolina lake.” They looked at me. “Because of half-backs.” More stares. “You know….the Northerners who retire, are tired of the cold North, move to Florida, find Florida too hot, and move half-way back.” This was completely obvious to me (personal knowledge of these towns), but not, clearly, to others. I’ll definitely want to explain the appeal of this type of location in upcoming books.

I thought the members of the book club had very interesting ideas about my characters and the type of direction they like to see them go in. I love reading character growth over series, so their ideas were appealing to me.

And now, because it’s Thursday, I’d love it if you’d also pop by the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen. It’s my day to post and I’ve got a great barbeque and BBQ sauce recipe to share.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Changing Our Plans

blog I’m not the most flexible person in the world. I like sticking to a plan whether or not it turns out to be a good one in the end.

I can abruptly shift to plan B (although then I adhere to that plan with the same steadfastness.)

The worst problems happen when I’m not in charge of the plan at all…when some outside force makes me change course.

Yesterday was the first day back at school for the kids. I did a bunch of work at home, then realized I needed to run a couple of errands before they got back. I also needed to spend more time on revisions before the elementary bus arrived at 2:00 (yes, my daughter is home early—she’s at school at 7 a.m. though.) I promised myself I’d be back by 12:30.

Naturally, things didn’t go according to plan, which really rattled me. I couldn’t remember what ink cartridge my printer took when I was at the office supply store. Then I realized I needed to run an additional errand that wasn’t on my list. When I finally reached my last stop at the grocery store, it was already 12:10.

I flew through the store, ripping things off the shelves and careening dangerously through the aisles with my cart. I was determined to make my arbitrary deadline. I swiped my debit card, rushed to the car, and flung things into the back of the minivan. And then…I dropped two pounds of green grapes in the parking lot and watched as they scattered everywhere.

I’ve been just as determined to make my Berkley deadline. So when my agent got back to me on Sunday, I was at first delighted to see that my corrections looked really minimal…until I noticed she’d added one content suggestion that was a doozy.

A fix quickly occurred to me, but I groaned anyway. This would mean changing my game plan. And only days before deadline!

Fortunately, I put this in perspective. I want this book to be as perfect as I can make it before it goes to my editor. I won’t miss my deadline. It just means putting in some extra time on a section of the book I hadn’t planned on. I’ve no desire to fling grapes everywhere in another mad rush.

So I’m making the content changes. And Emily, if you’re reading this---no worries. I’m back on target for my deadline.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Book Club Appearances

Untitled. by Bernard Boutet de Monvel ,French, 1881-1949 This evening I’m speaking to a local book club. I know writers who do quite a few book club appearances, but I’ve only spoken to a few.

Galen Kindley wrote a great blog post with some really useful book club tips which I’m linking to. The link is a cached page since Galen’s original post was accidentally erased.

His tips included having a prize drawing for the members (bookstore gift card, e.g.), bringing prepared topics and questions as conversation-starters, and watching for signs the book club members’ attention might be drifting.

I’m going to use Galen’s suggestions tonight, and I’ve also made a list of observations from my last book club appearance and how I’ve tweaked my preparation, in response, for this one:

The members had read the book more recently than I had. I’ve read my book again. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get confused with the two books I’m writing now.

The members were interested in the books that I’ve read and who inspires me. I have a handout that lists my favorite books and authors.

Book club meetings can become really lively. We might not always be in on the members’ jokes. It’s okay to just smile. I won’t be in any hurry to break into their conversations.

The questions I get from book clubs are different from the questions I get from writers. (I receive more questions about the book’s characters—are they based on real people? What do those people think of my books? etc). I’m prepared to talk more in depth about my characters and their motivations. I’m also prepared to talk about small plot points in the book.

Some of the book club questions are not different from questions I get from writers. (How many hours a day do you write? How long did it take for you to get published? How long does it take you to write a book?) Luckily, I’m very accustomed to getting writing process questions. I’m ready for them!

Book clubs are fun for me. I enjoy being around other readers and love the fact they’ve selected my book for their club. In fact, Pretty is as Pretty Dies even features a book club in the novel. I’m looking forward to my appearance this evening…and feel that this time I’m better prepared than my previous appearance.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tooting Our Own Horn

St. Edward's Crown I’ll admit I have a hard time with face-to-face promotion—unlike other members of my family. Are you a natural promoter? Visit me at Inkspot today and share your ideas on making the process easier for me.

And, yes, a crown does figure into my story there. :)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guests at the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

ApplePie-2 I’m really fortunate to have some wonderful writing friends—both online and in the flesh. It was my Sunday on the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen blog to host a mystery-writing guest. Jim and Joyce Lavene--who have written more than 40 books for Berkley Prime Crime, Midnight Ink, Avon, and others—are great friends of mine who live near me in Midland, NC.


One of their series is a Renaissance Faire series for Berkley and they shared their recipe for Appyl Taryt (and some 16th century epicurean history). Hope you’ll pop over and say hi.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Top Ten Things To Do With Review Snips

Kill Your DarlingsHope you’ll join me this morning over at the Blood Red Pencil where look at review snips. You’ve got some good reviews….now what do you do with them?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Losing Control--Letting Our Books Face Criticism

Kill Your DarlingsWe all like to make sure our books are shown in the best possible light. But when we send our new release out into the world, things can get ugly. What if someone doesn’t like our book and we have an upcoming interview with them? What if our books get negative reviews?

How far can we go in controlling our publicity and appearances? For my thoughts on this, please pop over and visit me on The Blood-Red Pencil.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Summer Send-Off: Southern-Style Potato Salad

IMG_5853 Okay, y’all. It’s Thursday, and…as usual…that means it’s heart-attack on a plate day! Please visit me on Mystery Lovers' Kitchen for a recipe to send summer off in style.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Remaining Calm

The eye of Marie-Clémentine-1798-1881--Artist unknown It was my my husband’s and my 16th wedding anniversary on August 7th. We decided to go out for a nice dinner to celebrate. We choose a fancy restaurant in South Park Charlotte called Zebra.

This meant I needed to look nice. Oh, I clean up well, but nine days out of ten I take no effort at all with my appearance. In fact, I’d packed my makeup for our trip to Highlands, NC (about a month ago now) and have not located it since then. I think I stuck it in a bag that was inside another bag and inside another bag….I’m wondering if I threw it away. So now, even if I’m reacquainted with my makeup, I’m not sure I’ll remember how to effectively apply it. I pulled on a brown dress, wore strappy sandals (I’m way-tall for heels), yanked a comb through the long brown hair and called myself good enough.

We walk into Zebra and I realize that I’m in the midst of the most glamorous and elegant women I’ve ever seen. AND---they were all at least 10-15 years older than my 38 years. I squinted at them through the dim lighting. Did they have work done? No, it didn’t look that way. But…oh. Make-up. Well applied. Fortunately, my husband seemed oblivious to the Glamazons in the restaurant, and delighted to be with his wife with the AWOL makeup.

I’m not a competitive person (good thing, since I don’t tend to win things) and I’m not a jealous person (a trait I find rather disgusting), but I’m a very Type-A person. I want to do a Good Job.

Since I’m writing the first book of a series for Berkley Prime Crime, I bought a bunch of epicurean mysteries published by Penguin. I wanted to make sure I’d done a Good Job. This was both helpful and disturbing. Helpful: I was able to gauge the approximate ratio of food to mystery. I was able to get a good feel for their line. Disturbing: I was reading a very polished finished product. My draft didn’t seem to measure up.

I’m not sure I can recommend purchasing books that are similar to your own and critiquing them. But, if you choose to do this, here is my big tip:

Treat it like English class: I brought out my red pen.I circled things, wrote notes in the margins, and completely deconstructed the books. This encouraged an objectivity that helped me remain calm.

Noticing the pretty ladies in the restaurant? Cost=$50 at the Clinique counter at Macy’s. Feeling inadequate while reading a well-edited version of what I was trying to accomplish? Cost =$10 lunch with a friend where I babbled the whole time about fabulously-talented writers. Keeping my objectivity while obtaining useful strategies to apply to my novel? Priceless.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Knowing When to DIY, and When to Call the Pros

IMG_5849 Saturday, I was fussing at a garden hose before finally asking my husband to reconnect the hose to the spigot. He found a wrench. “With this,” he explained, you’re stronger than the strongest man in the world.” It wasn’t a task I needed to hand off, after all.

Also on Saturday (busy day), our son pointed out that the upstairs hall’s light fixture was full of dirty water. Oh, and that there was a big brown spot on the ceiling. This is never a good thing.

My husband braved the attic (and whew, is it HOT in the South in August), and discovered the drip pan thingy for the furnace/A/C had overflowed. He soaked up the tray’s water with old towels. He poured bleach into the pipes to clear them. Then he emptied the light fixture.

But then---the downstairs A/C suddenly wasn’t working. Did I mention the August heat in the South?

It was time to call in the big guns. Yesterday we had an air conditioning repairman come out. He stepped right into his heroic role of restoring cool air to our family.

Yesterday I also emailed a draft to my agent. My September 1 deadline is fast approaching for Memphis BBQ series book 1. I’ve fiddled and fiddled and fiddled with the draft. I’ve added scenes, removed scenes, rewritten characters, and changed the ending. I changed the murderer and then changed it back.

It was a task that I could handle myself at first. And I already had the tools. But then it became like the leaky drip pan. I needed to call in a pro. I’d done all I could on my end, but it needed to go one step farther.

I realized it had gotten to the point where I needed another set of eyes. I needed someone who was going to tell me straight-up and in short order what I should consider changing….before my Berkley editor gets it. My agent, who has a vested interest in my writing career, was the perfect recipient.

Signs it’s time to hand over our project to another reader:

  • You’ve read the entire draft beginning to end ten times, but now discover typos that you’ve overlooked every other time.
  • You’re at deadline at you suddenly consider a major overhaul on one big section of your book (that may actually be fine without it, but you’ve lost perspective.)
  • You’re so familiar with your own characters (since they’re living in your head) that you can’t tell whether they’ve been introduced or described well to your reader (who doesn’t yet have them in his head.)
  • You have several different beginning and ending scenarios and can’t decide between them.

I think handing off a project too early isn’t good---like the garden hose, it’s something we can handle ourselves. Too many different opinions can do serious damage to a work in progress. I don’t like people reading my unfinished drafts.

But there comes a point where the draft is completed and we’ve struggled through it enough. That’s the time when it’s a relief to discover what a fresh set of eyes and a different perspective can do for us.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Awards Day


Today is Awards Day on Mystery Writing is Murder. Look around you—see all the celebrities in evening clothes, the multimillion dollar bling the stars are wearing, the hilarious Master of Ceremonies, the orchestra? No? Sorry about that. But please use your imagination…we’re all writers here!

I’ve received some fantastic awards from my blogging friends and wanted to return the favor during an awards ceremony. I read a lot of blogs. I have many favorites. Today I’m recognizing some of my favorite places to hang out online, and some of the friends, new and old, I’ve made in my browsing trek.

Please accept the award with my thanks for your comments and your wonderful blogs. You’re welcome to post them or not, pass them on or not—with my thanks to you all!

I also want to thank everyone who takes the time to comment on Mystery Writing is Murder. I appreciate your thoughts and insights so much and only wish I could list everyone here who regularly visits me.

(****If you want to pass the Kreativ Blogger award or the Superior Scribbler award along to others, see the bottom of this post for details.)


Kreativ Blogger Award

Awarded to me by Dorte

My recipients are:

Marybeth Smith—Desperately Searching for my Inner Mary Poppins

Galen Kindley—Imagineering Fiction

Helen Ginger—Straight from Hel

Hart Johnson—Confessions of a Watery Tart

Nancy Sharpe—Realms of Thought

Patricia Stoltey—Patricia Stoltey

Cleo Coyle from Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen and her cool website at Coffeehouse

When passing the award to others, we list 7 favorites. Here are 7 of my Favorite Mystery Authors (of many authors and in no particular order)

M.C. Beaton Elizabeth George P.D. James Deborah Crombie Louise Penny Agatha Christie Ruth Rendell


The Humane Award is to honor certain bloggers that I feel are kindhearted individuals. They regularly take part in my blog and always leave the sweetest comments. If it wasn't for them, my site would just be an ordinary blog. Their blogs are also amazing and are tastefully done on a regular basis. I thank them and look forward to our growing friendships through the blog world.

imageAwarded me by Helen Ginger

My recipients are:

Elspeth Antonelli—It’s a Mystery

Alan Oroff—A Million Blogging Monkeys

Glynis Smy—Author Blog: Glynis Smy ; New Scribbles from Glynis Smy

Dorte H-- DJ’s Krimblog

Karen Walker—Following the Whispers (Karen, I know this might be a repeat for you, but I wanted to show my appreciation for your comments!)

Labanan at Crazy Jane

imageAwarded me by Marybeth Smith.

My recipients are:

Julie Lomoe—Julie Lomoe’s Musings Mysterioso

Terry Odell—Terry’s Place

L. Diane Wolfe--Spunk on a Stick

Marvin Wilson—The Old Silly’s Free Spirit Blog

Jane Kennedy Sutton--- Jane’s Ride

Thanks so much everyone! I only wish you could leave the award banquet with full tummies, and goodie bags.

*****Rules for Passing on the Superior Scribbler Award

The blog award rules are as follows (which according to rule #5 I am required to post here):

  1. Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
  2. Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
  3. Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.
  4. Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
  5. Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

*****Rule for Passing on the Kreativ Blogger Award

It functions as a meme---list 7 of your favorite things, 7 of your favorite activities, 7 things no one knows about you, etc.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tell me a Story: Writing, Art, Music

Le Marauder--François-Emile Barraud , 1931 I noticed something the other day and wondered if other writers felt the same way. 

My favorite music is heavy on storytelling--by singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jim Croce, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, etc.   Music genres like the blues also hold a strong appeal for me.

Windmill--1934--Eric RaviliousMy favorite art tells a story.  I do like landscapes, but only if they seem like a story setting or draw me in to the picture.  I like portraits where the people’s eyes are speaking to me. I’m interested in Munch’s The Scream, where the focal point is in agony and the other people on the bridge seem unaware of his distress.   There’s  a story. 

  Study of a Female Head--Nella Marchesini--1920sAs a reader, I think I’m a fairly demanding one.  I want an escape, and quickly.  I want a good story.

Maybe that’s why I can’t leave my drafts alone.  Is it good enough? Does the reader want to be friends with my protagonist?  Have I told a good story? 

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Character Faults—How Far Do We Go?

Self Portrait 1925--Agda Holst I’ll admit I’m a real fan of imperfect protagonists. If I’m reading a book and I can’t identify with the main character because they are just too sweet, then I’ll put the book down. Even Pollyanna had her moments when she wasn’t wonderful.

But then….where’s the line? How far can we push the reader before they dislike our protagonists for having too many faults? The last thing I want to do is alienate a reader by having them get frustrated with my protagonist.

This post goes along a little with my post yesterday. I feel like character qualities (good and bad) influence their behavior in a plot and the outcome of different events.

At the same time, I try to balance the good qualities and the bad ones. I tend to focus more on the bad, though—that’s the source of much of the humor in my books.

My protagonist in the Myrtle Clover series is a feisty woman. She’s smart, caring, active, and witty….but she also has a sharp tongue, a huge stubborn streak, and a proclivity to irritability.

I try to ensure that Myrtle’s warm-heartedness, even though she’s not a sentimental character, shines through her actions. I try to minimize her vices by having her machinations backfire on her in humorous ways.

Do you write protagonists with obvious vices? How do you successfully keep the reader engaged? How do you balance the good with the bad?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Character-Driven Plotting

Yngve Johnson Tore-- Swedish--1928-1979--Untitled 1949. I love reading novels where characters’ faults or virtues play a role in determining their fate.

Take me, for example. I did something stupid on Wednesday that could have taken my day on a completely different trajectory, had I been unluckier than I was. I went to the grocery store to get some of the ingredients for the breakfast casserole on the food blog.

It was already raining, but lightly. I hate carrying things around with me, so I impatiently just hurried into the store without my umbrella. When I came back outside, it was pouring. Most people were intelligently waiting near the door for the rain to let up (which it did in about 3 minutes.) But….I was impatient again and dashed across the pedestrian crosswalk. Note: I did not have my children with me. I tend to use my brain a lot more when they’re around.

It was raining, I was in a hurry, and a young man in a car was, too. He tore out of the parking lot area, swerving left toward me as I ran for my car. He slammed on his brakes and I froze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. I looked at him—pale 20-something with a goatee and a shaken expression, still holding a cell phone to his face. I rested my hand on the hood of his car.

Now, let’s look at this as far as plotting goes. Both my impatience and the young man’s put us in the situation. But what got us out of it? If he hadn’t been as young as he was, maybe his reflexes wouldn’t have been quick enough to stop on a pin like he did. Honestly, his reflexes were a lot faster than mine—I could only stop, not even try to avoid the car.

What are your characters’ virtues and vices? Are they stubborn? Naive? Are they nosy? Do they have an inferiority complex or a superiority one?

What are their characteristics? Do they think quickly on their feet? Are they meticulous? Gifted? Slow? Adventurous? Shy?

It’s interesting to think that you could take one character out of a plot situation, plug in a different character and have a completely different situation happen. What if a distracted mommy had been driving the car that nearly hit me? What if I’d had road-rage (on-foot rage?) and angrily pulled out a gun when I was almost run down? What if I’d been a child and too small for the person to see me?

The next time I get stuck with a plot problem, I’m going to play around with this scenario a little. Maybe I’ve just got the wrong character in the situation. Perhaps the scene was meant for a different character.

And I’m going to start carrying my umbrella.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Southern Comfort Food

IMG_5848 Please join me today at Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen for a little Southern comfort food—a little dish I like to call “Breakfast for Supper.” Yes, it’s a breakfast casserole and highly adaptable. Please pop over and check it out.

I promise I’ll be on my home-base on Friday. :) You’ll find me here tomorrow with some tips for character-driven plots.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Interview with Lesa’s Book Critiques

Blue Girl Reading-- Frederick Carl Frieseke Today my interview on Lesa’s Book Critiques posts. Honestly, I’ve been more excited by Lesa’s review than anything I’ve gotten from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, or Mystery Scene. That’s because of Lesa’s occupation and my affinity for the place where she spends a great deal of her time. Please head over to her blog to find out more! :)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review on Lesa’s Book Critiques

cropped 7 Hi everybody.  Today Pretty is as Pretty Dies  is being featured on Lesa’s Book Critique blog.  I was really excited by Lesa’s review.  She’s a library manager and professional reviewer and reads a ton of books.  It means a lot to me that she liked mine.

On Wednesday, Lesa’s interview with me will run, so I hope you’ll return for that.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Research Trips: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

IMG_5399 I thought I’d share with y’all a little about my Memphis, TN research trip. I needed to make the trip to put the finishing setting touches on my Memphis barbecue mystery (book one’s deadline is September 1.)

First of all, some handy tips if you’re writing a book set in a place you’re not living in:

It’s very helpful to have a friend in the town to drive you around and explain what you’re looking at. I was lucky enough to have friends of my husband’s family in Memphis. They were able to give me some interesting background on the city and even provided some newspaper clippings they’d kept for me on the street flipper phenomenon (something I knew nothing about.)

Remember to research small things as well as big. I had to do quite a bit of fact-checking. Some of my research even bored me: if residential neighborhoods were within walking distance of Beale Street, if a particular park had playground equipment or if it were simply an entertainment venue-type, etc. This is detail-oriented stuff, but if someone from Memphis reads my book and throws it across the room in disgust….well, that wouldn’t be a good thing.

Call the local Chamber of Commerce. Explain you’re a writer, basing a series in their town. See if they can arrange discounts for you.

Bring your business cards. When I walked into the very elegant Peabody hotel and talked to the manager there, handing them my business card made me look a little more legitimate. Especially since I was rambling on about murders.

Keep those receipts. This is just smart business sense. Keep track of your mileage, your food costs, ticket costs for attractions, etc.

Bring a camera. I looked like a major tourist and took about 400 pictures in Memphis. No, I’m not kidding. But digital cameras make that easy and I’ve got 2 more books (at least) based in Memphis after this one. I took pictures of even the most random things. Who knows what I might need for material later on?

The Good the Bad and the Ugly: Personal Notes from Memphis

The Good: My inlaws’ friends were wonderful guides. They asked me what information I needed for my book. I had a backstage pass for the ducks at the Peabody, I had free food at the Rendezvous restaurant…they were awesome! In addition, my husband’s dad and his wife watched the kids for me and the kids had a wonderful time in Memphis---fishing, shopping, etc. Oh…and Graceland? Oddly peaceful.

The Bad: It was a long drive to Memphis from Charlotte---10.5 hours of driving. That’s at the upper limit of what we’ll drive as a family. But at least the drive was pretty. In addition, although we stayed at a very fancy hotel, we all stayed in the same room. I now realize that my 12 year old son snores and my daughter talks in her sleep all night. Did I mention I’m an insomniac even in good conditions?

The Ugly: When you ask a 7 year old if she thinks she might throw up and she says no……just head for the toilet right then. Do not believe her. Because she’ll just upchuck all over you…..and I know. It’s like they’re in denial or something: “If I say I’m not going to throw up, then I won’t throw up….”

One more note: I know readers will ask why I’ve set a book in a location that I’m not as familiar with. The answer: Berkley Prime Crime asked me to set it in Memphis. I’m nothing if not amiable! :) And it’s a lovely city….I had a great time discovering it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Sunday Interview

Happy Sunday morning, everyone!

Today I’m being interviewed at the Author Exchange blog: a great place to find out more about your favorite authors. And now, it’s also a great place to post news on upcoming releases, announce contests, and post blogs. Author Linda M. Faulkner is the blog owner.

Hope you’ll pop over there and say hi.

My writing workshop yesterday went well. The audience was attentive and asked some great questions, and I learned a lot from the other authors there, too.

One of the questions I got was about how I balanced my online time (blogging, Twitter, Facebook) with my writing time and family time. I was also asked whether I found social media useful.

To me, the time I spend online on blogging and social media is promotional and networking time for me. Not only is promoting part of my job as a published writer, it’s also become a lot more enjoyable to me through online media.

Facebook: I started out using Facebook as a conduit to connect with family members and old friends who used it. I quickly discovered that I needed a separate page for my professional profile. My husband and I agreed that I would keep the kids’ and my husband’s image/names off the net as much as possible and let them enjoy their anonymity. (They didn’t sign up to be as public as me.)

This method has worked really well for me. I have a professional FB page as Elizabeth Spann Craig Author and have made a lot of connections there. Also, I’m figuring out Networked Blogs and have enjoyed discovering new blogs to read and new people to follow.

Twitter: I was a big pooh-pooher of Twitter, but have been surprised to find a niche there. If you want, you can use Twitter only to connect to readers, writers, and industry professionals. It’s a painless way to keep up with industry news via links, connect with other writers, etc. I was thrilled yesterday when someone tweeted that they’d just bought my book. That kind of connection with a reader was just unheard of before. Plus, I’ve gotten several book reviews written about my book because of my Twitter identity.

Blogging—Admittedly, blogging can take up a lot of time. There again, though, the rewards have been tremendous. I’ve connected with other writers and readers from around the world and have really enjoyed the experience.

Anyone else become a social media convert?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Chloe the Super Star and Other Promo Notes

Chloe and I have coffee I was asked (or….maybe I should say my dog was asked to be interviewed for the fun site, Coffee with a Canine.  It’s a fun place to promote a book because your appearance there revolves around a date with your dog.

Chloe, the corgi, was wildly excited to participate.  She got lots of attention in downtown Matthews from passersby, and even drank some of my chai tea latte (which I did not plan.) 

The point here is that sometimes it’s fun to take a detour from your usual blog haunts to try something different and reach out to another audience. 

This morning I’m off to give a writers’ workshop in Concord, NC at the library there.  I’m in a promotional group of other Carolina mystery writers (the Carolina Conspiracy) and find it’s much easier for me to participate in a promotional group.  I’m far from being a natural public speaker and being with several other writers really seems to help me out. 

Basically, our promotional group works this way: everyone helps find opportunities for appearances.  These might be signings, workshops, craft fairs, or other events.  We promote the event on our website and encourage the event organizers to promote it on their end. We bring our own bookmarks, books, and promo materials. 

Some appearances are better attended than others.  Even the ones that are poorly attended are still useful to me—I share ideas and information with the other authors there. 

What Pulls Us to the Genre We Write?

I love mysteries. I always have. I started out with those Encyclopedia Brown books in first grade. I thought it was so clever the way Encyclopedia solved one case by realizing the reflection in a spoon is upside down.

Then I moved on to Nancy Drew. Nancy was it for a long time. She was determined, smart, had great titian hair (a word I had to look up in the dictionary in second grade), and even had a neat boyfriend, Ned (who wisely didn't discourage Nancy from crime-fighting.) The books had just the right level of spookiness and danger. Sometimes I had trouble going to sleep, but that was mostly because I wanted to go on reading and find out what happened next. I read all of the books in the series--many more than once.

After Nancy came Trixie Belden. Trixie was different. She sometimes got in trouble with her parents, and even with her much-older brother, Brian. They were more of the "meddlesome kid" variety of detective (sort of like the Scooby Doo kids.) These books had strong characterizations, cool plots, but maybe weren't quite as spooky as Nancy. Well, there was one in particular that gave me chills, but I'm talking generalities here.

Once I found Agatha Christie, I was hooked. I had to read all of her books immediately. Hercule Poirot and his odd idiosyncrasies was my favorite, but Miss Marple came in as a close second. Some of her books scared me to death. I really couldn't sleep after several of them, and it wasn't just because I wanted to go on reading. It was because Mrs. Christie had totally freaked me out. I remember one, not even one of her well-known books, where we discovered at the end that the narrator was the killer...he was psychotic. Arghhhhh!! I was up for hours. And loved it.

Since then, I've had many favorite mystery series. Mysteries remain my favorite genre for one major reason: escapism. By identifying with the sleuth/detective/police, I can be plunged into danger in the pages of a book and escape by the skin of my teeth. It's terrific stress relief. All of your tension can be tied up in this one place....and you know that somehow everything will work out in the end.

By the time I wrote my first mystery, I felt I’d read enough through the years to know what makes a good mystery. I didn’t feel like I had as much of a handle on other genres, which is why I didn’t take a stab at them.

I felt most at home writing mysteries. I think familiarity with a genre gives us confidence when writing it.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Getting Over It

Landscape--Prudence Heward We were on I-40 on Sunday, driving back to Charlotte from my research trip to Memphis when my husband drove up on a completely-stopped line of cars on the interstate. Obviously, there’d been a wreck or some sort of accident. We’d already been on the road about 7 hours at this point and I got it into my head that I was not going to sit in that line.

“Exit right here!” I said in an urgent voice.

“But we don’t know where that exit goes,” answered my husband in a very reasonable tone.

“It’ll be okay,” I said. “If we get stuck in that pile of traffic then both kids will have to go to the bathroom and I will, too.”

Soooo…..we got off on this exit. We drove along the curvy rural highway, through a tiny downtown, some beautiful rolling countryside, past a scary-looking redneck grinning at us from a ditch, and then—up a mountain. And up a mountain. We then saw a little sign that said we were at 4500 ft. My husband looked over at me. I gave a weak smile. “Mr. Toad’s wild ride,” he said. “But it’s pretty,” I said stubbornly, as the time we’d spent on our little bypass neared an hour.

This was followed by my sudden realization we were at Looking Glass Falls near Brevard, NC (no, that wasn’t exactly on our way home.) I dragged the half-asleep children and my very patient husband (who was rapidly getting more exasperated with me, though) out of the car to take pictures of them in front of the waterfalls…it was almost 8:30 p.m. and pretty dark then, but I got the shot, by golly.

Yes, I am becoming the stereotype of the crazy writer.

The above story illustrates the sad fact that I’m hard-headed. It’s very difficult to change my mind about anything. Except my writing. I’ve learned not to mind about not getting my way when going through revisions. I’ve gotten over it.

Here’s why I’ve gotten over being hard-headed about revisions:

The editors and my agent care about my book possibly even more than I do. Yes, I do love my books. But my editor and agent are industry professionals who really care about the project their names are associated with. After all, it’s their job on the line if they take on a series of substandard books.

In my experience, the revision requests are handled very professionally. The first round of revisions I received for Pretty is as Pretty dies was in early fall last year. The wording of the requested revisions was very polite: “Would I consider changing…?” And it was all done in writing, which is my favorite way of doing business.

Their suggestions made my book better. Every time. After all, they read more than I do. Sometimes I could not figure out why the heck they wanted me to make a change. I rewrote the scene with the change to see what I thought and every time I was amazed at how much better it read.

This is a commercial endeavor. I know we’re all artists. But as soon as I came to the realization that these books have got to be able to sell or else no one is going to get an opportunity to read them, I was totally on board.

Being open to others’ revisions has made me a better writer. Now if I can only get over my stubbornness in the other areas of my life…

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Some South in Your Mouth

Red Beans and Rice I’m researching Memphis for my Memphis barbeque series and just returned from a 5 day visit. One of my Memphis discoveries? Red beans and rice (not the Creole version, but the Memphis one.) Please visit me today at Mystery Lovers' Kitchen for a recipe that will make your taste buds sing.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Promoting to Libraries

Interno--Gigi Chessa Getting your book onto library shelves means you’re reaching a wider audience of readers. For my thoughts and tips on library marketing, please pop over and visit me today at Alan Orloff’s blog, A Million Blogging Monkeys.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why a Book Release is a “Blessed Event”

Portrait de la belle-fille de Maxim Gorki (Motherhood) by Boris Dmitrievich Grigor'ev (1886-1939) Having a book released is almost like having a baby. Pop over and visit me at Routines for Writers today to find out more.

Some of you have asked me how the release is going. As far as I can tell, it’s going pretty well. The buzz seems good to me and I was at my local library branch this afternoon and saw my book had 13 requests already. They still have it on order currently, though.

Getting our books into bookstores and libraries is a big part of 21st century writers’ jobs. I’m not great on the phone, but love writing (i.e.—mail.) I’ve called some stores and will send postcards to others.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Character Perspectives

Portrait of a Woman--1900--Olga Boznańska How do simple things change our (and our characters’) perspectives on the world?

Please visit me at InkSpot today to find out.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Small Town and Big City Appeal

Chloe and me in downtown MatthewsMy Myrtle Clover series is set in a small, Southern town. My Memphis Barbeque series is set in a larger city.

There's a certain gossipy element that small-town settings provide. People in small towns may know more about you than you wish they did. Not only that, they may compare your behavior to other members of your family from generations back--favorably or non.

Larger cities, on the other hand, can provide an exciting backdrop for your story. At night in Memphis, you never know who you might run into on Beale street. The city is faster-paced and music, food, and the Mississippi River are threads that run through everything.

I'm having a good time writing both settings. I grew up in a small town, but I've since lived in larger cities. I love the sense of community I get in a town, and the cultural/entertainment opportunities available in larger ones. The suburbs get a bad rap, but I think I've gotten a little taste of both worlds there.

Are you pulled toward small towns or larger cities for your settings?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pretty is as Pretty Dies

Pretty Is as Pretty Today is the day! Pretty is as Pretty Dies hits the shelves today, August 1.

I hope you’ll pick up a copy at your local bookstore or online: IndieBound , Midnight Ink , Barnes and Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million.

Here’s the back cover copy and review snippets:

Bingo, bridge-and a dead body in the church sanctuary?

Life in this small Southern town just got ugly . . . and exciting!

No one in Bradley, North Carolina, is exactly crying into their sweet tea over the murder of Parke Stockard. Certainly not retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover. Upon discovering the corpse, Myrtle is struck-not with grief, but a brilliant idea! Solving the crime would prove to everyone (especially her son Red, the police chief) that this eighty-something-year-old is not ready to be put out to pasture just yet.

The victim, a pretty but pushy town developer, had deep pockets and few friends. Myrtle can't throw one of her gaudy garden gnomes without hitting a potential suspect. Even when another murder takes place, proud Myrtle forges on, armed only with a heavy cane, a venomous tongue, and a widower sidekick.


"An amusing first in a new cozy series" —Publishers Weekly

“Craig’s skill at evoking a small town and its idiosyncratic inhabitants renders this mystery a pleasure to read. I’m looking forward to the further exploits of Myrtle Clover.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

It’s been a really exciting ride getting this book launched, and I’ve got a busy few weeks ahead of me. I really appreciate the writing friends I’ve made online who’ve listened as I’ve vented some of the frustrations and joys of writing and getting published.